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Feinstein’s Call for Leak Investigation Into Publishing of Top Secret Order for Verizon Call Data

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Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein is passionately defending National Security Agency surveillance and calling for a leak investigation into the source, who provided a copy of a top secret order issued by a United States secret surveillance court, even as whistleblowers repeat warnings about surveillance they have been making for years.

On “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on MSNBC, Feinstein appeared to demonstrate how the order published and obtained by The Guardian and columnist Glenn Greenwald was showing routine surveillance under a provision of the PATRIOT Act that has been reauthorized four times since the law passed in 2001.

Feinstein said the order published was “under seal. So clearly, it was leaked. It — these opinions are not routinely even given to the intelligence community. And I think the public ought to know that.” She was then asked whether it was just Verizon, who was being ordered to turn over records to the NSA. Feinstein interjected, “This is classified. I can neither affirm it nor deny it. I’ve been told that the White House is looking right now at what can be said about that very point.” She later repeated, “The fact of the matter is, that this was a routine three-month approval under seal that was leaked.”

Asked if there should be an investigation, she said, “I think so,” and, “I think we have become a culture of leaks now.”

The “culture of leaks” exists for at least two reasons: (1) senior officials in President Barack Obama’s administration leak information to media organizations that they believe should be part of the conversation around national security policies because it will enable the administration’s agenda and the administration will not have to declassify key documents it would like to keep secret; (2) individuals in government institutions find what certain agencies or institutions are engaged in to be shameful, horrendous or illegal and believe it is necessary to inform the public because citizens have a right to know.

Feinstein and other politicians, who reflexively call for leak investigations when the public gets a peek at how the national security state is operating, do not go after the leakers in high-ranking positions in government that compromise classified information. People like former CIA director Leon Panetta can reveal the name of the Navy SEAL unit that was responsible for carrying out the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound at awards ceremonies. They can name the unit’s ground commander, discuss “top secret” and “secret” information in front of an audience that just so happens to include a filmmaker, who might go on to make a movie including the classified information. Politicians will not make calls for prosecutions or investigations.

They will, however, call for investigations that could seriously infringe upon the press freedom of journalists like the New York Times‘ David Sanger as Feinstein did back in June 2012 after Sanger published a story and book containing information on the Obama administration’s use of cyber warfare against Iran.

On CNN, Feinstein even suggested that Sanger had “misled” her about the nature of what he’d be reporting:

He came into my office. He saw me….He assured me that what he was publishing, he had worked out with various agencies and he didn’t believe that anything was revealed that wasn’t known already… Well, I read ‘The New York Times’ article and my heart dropped, because he wove a tapestry which has an impact that’s beyond any single one thing. And he’s very good at what he does. And he spent a year figuring it all out. And he’s just one. And this is a problem.

The problem to American politicians is not just “leaks,” but investigative journalism. They abhor it because it forces them into a position where they face scrutiny over whether they’ve properly held those in the executive branch accountable. And, in nearly all cases, it is clear that what they see as “oversight” is merely ensuring that some in Congress get to be filled in on the expansion of executive power regularly so, if a scandal erupts, they do not appear derelict in their duty.

As Senator Jeff Sessions said back in June after the Times published a story on Obama’s secret kill list by reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “These” people “were all talking to the New York Times. Somebody provided information that shouldn’t have been provided. These are some of the closest people you have in government to the President of the United States. So, this is a dangerous thing.” He went on to note that the Times was talking to senior officials at the Justice Department. He suggested this is a “matter of seriousness.”

It was a matter of seriousness. The article revealed details on the administration’s claimed authority to assassinate and kill individuals abroad in countries where the US has not declared war. But, that was the content of the news story and politicians are never interested in the content of the leak. It’s always the “leaker” that they focus their attention upon, and they remove any political context from the leak as well so that they can convince Americans it was unjustifiable for them to know what was disclosed.

Both William Binney and Thomas Drake, whistleblowers from the NSA, appeared on “Democracy Now!” this morning. Drake was prosecuted under the Espionage Act by the Obama administration for going to a Baltimore Sun reporter with details on NSA corruption related to a private contractor program, Trailblazer, that never became operational. Binney decided to challenge this program as well and he had his home raided by the FBI.

Drake said he had been warning about the “phenomenal set of records that is continually being added to, aggregated, year after year and year, on what have now become routine orders.” With Jesselyn Radack from the Government Accountability Project, they had been “saying this for years” and “from the wilderness.” Where has the media been? Everybody has been asleep as the government harvests these records on a routine basis, he added, and the secret surveillance regime really has developed a “hoarding complex” and cannot get enough of Americans’ personal data.

Binney said:

NSA has been doing all this stuff all along, and it’s been all the companies, not just one. And I basically looked at that and said, well, if Verizon got one, so did everybody else, which means that, you know, they’re just continuing the collection of this kind of information on all U.S. citizens. That’s one of the main reasons they couldn’t tell Senator Wyden, with his request of how many U.S. citizens are in the NSA databases. There’s just—in my estimate, it was—if you collapse it down to all uniques, it’s a little over 280 million U.S. citizens are in there, each in there several hundred to several thousand times.

It is through people like Binney and Drake that Americans actually know some details about the nature of NSA surveillance. Through Thomas Tamm, a former Justice Department lawyer, the public learned about warrantless wiretapping under President George W. Bush. Through former CIA officer John Kiriakou, the public was given confirmation that the CIA had an official policy that permitted the waterboarding of detainees. But, Drake and Kiriakou were pursued as if they were spies and indicted under the Espionage Act. Kiriakou is in jail serving a thirty-month sentence. (Tamm was investigated, too, but the Obama administration dropped the case.)

Then, there’s the case of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who disclosed a video showing a US Apache helicopter attack that killed Reuters employees and an innocent civilian in Iraq, military incident reports from Iraq and Afghanistan that showed how detainees were being tortured and US forces were conducting night raids and US State Embassy cables that called attention to diplomatic scandals happening at nearly every American post in the world. The radical act of transparency revealed some of the extent to which diplomats are working on behalf of US corporations and also helping to facilitate covert operations. And yet, the US military is being permitted to prosecute him as if there are legitimate claims to be made about how Manning’s disclosures to WikiLeaks aided al Qaeda so they can possibly put him in prison for life without parole.

With rampant over-classification of information and ever-escalating secrecy around national security policies and programs, it is only through leaks that the public gets a peek at what government is actually doing. So, rather than support another leaks investigation that will likely lead to the seizure of phone records that chills confidential news sources or leads to a source being prosecuted under the Espionage Act as if they are spy, the appropriate response is to acknowledge how the national security state has seriously run amok.

Congress has wholly abdicated its responsibility to check executive power. Media have allowed White House propaganda to diminish the extent to which they consider outrage toward national security policies and programs to be valid. And so, the only hope for finding out the truth lies with individuals who do not abandon their conscience in government and engage in profoundly courageous acts, risking their livelihoods and futures because the public has a right to know when their government is engaged in shameful, horrendous or illegal acts that they intend to keep concealed.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."